My sister Sarah went to a small college where you actually got to know the professors.
Her Eastern European History professor was her favorite, Professor Petrovich. He was Yugoslavian, and he was the official interpreter for President Jimmy Carter whenever Yugoslavian President Tito was in Washington D.C.
Professor Petrovich was also a character, and was almost always late for appointments.
One day he was really late, late for a plane flight. He raced down the freeway at almost ninety miles an hour. A police car began to chase him with sirens wailing, but he kept going. Soon half a dozen police cars joined the chase, and they pulled him over.
He jumped out of the car and yelled at the officers, “I am the interpreter for the President of the United States. I’ve got to catch a plane. If I don’t, it will be a humiliation for President Carter and a dishonor to President Tito. I’ve got to get to the airport now!”
The officers looked at each other, rushed back to their cars, and escorted the professor to the airport with lights flashing and sirens wailing, as though they were escorting the president himself. It was the ride of the professor’s life.
After he told my sister this story, he concluded in his thick accent: “Sawah, the moral of the story is, ‘When you lie, lie B-E-E-E-G!’”
I was at Panera waiting for a friend when I overheard a three-way conversation at the next table. I didn’t mean to listen, but they were loud and seemed unaware of others.
One person complained—just a little—of his spouse’s odd eccentricities; another found fault in a boss’s stupidity; and the last grumbled a bit at her grown child’s ingratitude. Just normal middle-class Americans griping at everyday discomforts.
Then the first told of a documentary he had seen on tribal peoples in the South American Rain Forests, people who had little to no contact with the rest of the world.
The threesome turned out to be Christians, and they wondered about the eternal future for such people. One asked, “If someone never heard the gospel, do they have any chance of heaven? Or is hell their only option?”
Another had just read a book which claimed that everyone is going to heaven. After all, if God really loves the world, wouldn’t he save the whole world? Everyone at the table seemed swayed by this argument (which I think is faulty), and everyone sighed in relief.
Then someone asked, “If God is going to bring everyone to heaven, why on earth would anyone spend any time trying to evangelize anyone?” They concluded there is no need, and frankly no reason.
They collectively breathed another sigh of relief. I too was relieved. Not because of Universal Salvation—which I don’t believe.
I was relieved that these three would never try to evangelize.
Consider with me how the Garden of Eden was lost. The serpent said, “God knows that when you eat [the forbidden fruit] …, you will be like God” (Gen. 3:5). The hidden message was, “God withholds the very best things. He doesn’t love you.”
Adam and Eve believed this lie, and world history was forever changed.
When they believed this lie, they believed a false interpretation of reality. The “reality” they believed in became the reality they lived in. It governed their behavior.
It is precisely our beliefs that determine how we act, feel, and experience life. But many of our beliefs are hidden, so we act, feel, and experience life from unexamined beliefs.
It is vital for that we uncover hidden beliefs in our heart. The serpent is crafty. He doesn’t say, “God hates you.” He offers an interpretation that implies an unloving God. The subtlety of the lie makes it hard to spot.
Hidden beliefs are crippling most believers I know.
Deathbed advice offers impact which no other advice provides.
My father died of cancer sixteen years ago. A few weeks before his death, knowing he would die soon, my father offered me advice.
As a long term pastor, my father counseled hundreds of men and women. He said that many of them lived their lives being controlled by their parents. They spent their lives avoiding their parents’ bad behavior.
My father was not an angel; he had an anger problem. He lost his temper over little events, like when he lost his keys (which he seemed to lose all the time!). He was concerned that his kids might waste their lives trying to avoid his anger issue. He advised me instead to spend my energy imitating the good things I saw in my parents and teachers and friends.
Then he said this: “If you spend your life trying not to be somebody you will spend your life not being somebody.”
We will never become ourselves by running from; we will only become our true selves by running to. If we turn our inner life into a vacuum—always removing things—our inner life will never become a thing of substance. It will always be empty.
A few years ago, a client of mine visited us for a series of meetings. He asked for a restaurant recommendation, and I suggested The Gandy Dancer, my favorite restaurant. The very next day he came to my office and raved about the restaurant. He was going to recommend it to every one of his colleagues.
Smiling, I asked what he’d ordered. “Nothing,” he said, because he’d been too busy. But he had “stopped by and studied the menu, and everything looked incredible.”
That is how many of us believers live our lives. We read the menu and miss the meal. It’s as though we’ve come to believe that Christianity—boiled down to its core essence—is an abstract impersonal menu of truths.
But it isn’t; and that mistake leads to a bland, malnourished, and starving life.
In 1989 the company I worked for was dying; it was losing money like the prodigal son, it had a two-year sales drought, and our owner—though previously successful—was out of cash. The company asked me to demonstrate our software to one of our prospective clients. Actually, our only prospective client. If we didn’t land this deal, we were out of business and I was out of a job.
The night before the demo the client’s consultant Jerry invited me to dinner. He said our competitors had bungled their demos by wasting half of their time showing “cool” features that the client didn’t need. And when the client said they weren’t interested in such functionality, our competitors ignored their requests, and continued showing off the coolness of this or that particular feature.
Jerry went on to say that our competitors had failed because they wouldn’t yield control of the conversation to the client. The competitors thought they knew what was needed, while in fact only the client knew what was needed. Jerry suggested I begin my demo by asking the client to describe their needs. And then he suggested that I use the rest of the presentation to show solutions to their needs. I did. They liked it. We got the deal. And I kept my cubicle.
What does demoing software and controlling conversations have to do with hearing God?
Imagine two men who are given year long jobs in a sweat shop. Each man works the night shift in a hot and humid factory. Their bosses are overbearing and perhaps even brutal; the tasks are tedious and tiring; and the hours long and dreary.
The first man is told he will receive twenty-five thousand dollars at the end of the year. The second man is told he will receive twenty-five million dollars at the end of the year.
How will they react to the harsh conditions? The first man will hate every moment and probably give up after a month. The second man will whistle while he works.*
What is the difference? The circumstances are identical (hot, humid, long hours with overbearing bosses) and yet the actual experiences of those circumstances are wildly different.
The essence of Hope is simple. Our believed in future determines our experience of today. When we know—we believe in our hearts—that our future is something glorious, then our experience of today’s problems can be swallowed up in a joy.
What do we need most today, now, at this very minute and moment? We think we need relief from a current stress (financial, emotional, directional, or relational). But that is not our deepest need. Our deepest need is a deep belief of the heart. We need hope.
But, how can we endure difficulties? In Romans, Paul says,
Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us… Romans 5: 3-5
Notice the end result; suffering produces Hope. And notice that hope is not wishful thinking; instead, “Hope does not disappoint us.” God is producing in us a firm certainty of His future for us. In fact, he is using the very circumstances which we hate to create in us something that we’ll love. He is creating Hope. And we need this far more than we need any fix for any set of bad circumstances.
God wants us to possess a strength of character—Hope—that empowers us in the middle of the harshest of circumstances. Like the factory worker who knows he’ll receive twenty-five million at the end of the year, we’ll be able to whistle while we work. Only with a bigger promise, a firmer certainty, and a greater future.
Let’s say we want strengthen our muscles. So we pick up some dumbbells and begin curling iron. After five minutes our biceps are screaming and our body says to us, “I’m not getting stronger, I’m getting weaker!” Our trials can feel like that, but God is using them to build strength.
I don’t mean to be glib about our difficulties. Sometimes they are merely passing insensitive comments, and other times they are the loss of a loved one. My sister Becky lost her ten year old son to a car accident. She wrote,
To see my lovely, living and breathing child suddenly turned into nothing but an empty, lifeless shell seemed to me to be an unspeakable perversion. It left a huge gaping hole in my heart and life. I saw death as a monstrosity, repulsive, a thief who had the power to rob me of life and joy.
Later she wrote,
But because of what Jesus has done for us by dying for our sins and being raised from the dead, death can ultimately no longer rob us of anything. My son Robby is right now in the presence of God.
The Bible teaches us that when we die, we go immediately into the presence of Christ. “Today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus said to the thief on the cross. St. Paul said, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Death can only be gain if we are alive in the presence of God. Rev. 14:13 says: “Then I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’”
The biblical attitude towards death can be summed up in one great statement. It is a blessing. Jesus Christ has changed the meaning of death for the Christian.
Death is no longer our executioner, but has become our gardener.
What is the controlling reality of our hearts? Is it pejorative comments made by insensitive people? Is it hopeless lies which come from tragedies? Or is it the deep reality of what Christ promises us?
In the Lord of the Rings, Battle of Pelennor Fields, the battle has been fierce and bloody, the Lord of the Nazgûl is dead but friendly casualties also lie strewn about like refuse, the enemy’s forces seem unlimited, and all hope is lost. Into this darkness rides Aragorn on a fleet of ships. Then Éomer sees Aragon, “and wonder took him, and a great joy … and he sang.” That is Hope for us. We see the future, arriving.
One of my favorite hymns is For All The Saints, and my favorite verse in that hymn is this:
And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, Steals on the ear the distant triumph song, And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong. Alleluia, Alleluia!
This verse summarize the ending of the Battle of Pelennor Fields (in far fewer words!), and it perfectly illustrates how Hope and the Holy Spirit work in our hearts. When our strife is fierce and the warfare is long, the Holy Spirit opens our ears and our eyes to the distant triumph to come. That knowledge of the future—our true Hope—pours bravery back into our hearts and strength back into our arms.
We can face the day and all that it shall throw at us. We already know the outcome—eternal and glorious life—and we hear the victory song.